“There is no emperor. There’s only an empress!”
Film audiences in 1934 were looking for escape from the ordinary, from the daily difficulties of life during the depression years, and the studios were happy to comply. The year’s best film was Frank Capra’s It Happened One Night, a smartly written and acted screwball comedy. Howard Hawks’s Twentieth Century and W.S. Van Dyke’s The Thin Man were in the same vein. Also popular were Busby Berkeley’s musicals and he scored with Wonder Bar and Dames. W.C. Fields was particularly busy during the year with It’s a Gift, You’re Telling Me, and The Old Fashioned Way. Amidst all this hoopla arrived the sixth collaboration between director Josef von Sternberg and Marlene Dietrich — The Scarlet Empress.
The Scarlet Empress was von Sternberg’s film presentation of the early life of the Russian Empress, Catherine the Great, and his most extreme exercise in style to date. A sumptuous looking, intricately and outrageously designed visual study of a woman who progresses from innocent youthfulness to scheming maturity, however much her own survival forces her to it, was not what the film-going public nor critics wanted to see, never mind try to give serious consideration to. As film scholar Robin Wood, who provides an introduction to the Criterion Collection’s recent DVD release of the film states, “Were we supposed to laugh or weep? Was the film’s ending exhilarating or horrifying? Since that time, the film has been appropriated, most unfortunately, as a ‘camp’ classic. But it is a profoundly serious work.”
Serious indeed, and we are indebted to Criterion for making it available to us on DVD in one of their impeccably presented if not pristine-looking editions.
The young princess Sophia Frederica is brought to Russia from Germany by Czarina Elizabeth to marry her son, the Grand Duke Peter, who is heir to the Russian throne. Escorting Sophia to Russia is Count Alexei, a handsome member of the Russian court, who tells Sophia that her intended husband is far handsomer than Alexei himself. Upon arrival in Russia at the palace, Sophia is presented to the Czarina Elizabeth who, not liking Sophia’s name, immediately dubs her “Catherine.”
Catherine then is introduced to Peter, who instead of being handsome, turns out to be a grinning simpleton. Further, rather than being interested in Catherine, Peter prefers the attentions of his current mistress. Catherine refuses to live with Peter, but the marriage ceremony proceeds.
Afterwards, the marriage unconsummated, Catherine has numerous affairs and begins to curry favour with the army. Meanwhile, the Czarina becomes ill and dies. With Peter destined to be Emperor and apparently planning to kill Catherine and marry his mistress, Catherine makes her own plans to seize power.
It has been said of Josef von Sternberg that the distinction between him and all other directors of his time was the fact that he refused to obtain any effect whatsoever save by means of pictorial composition, in effect “the story does not move his picture; it is his picture which moves the story.” The Scarlet Empress is probably the ultimate example of this amongst the titles in von Sternberg’s body of work (although his follow-up picture, The Devil Is a Woman (1935, Paramount), comes close). The story line is quite clear in The Scarlet Empress, but it how von Sternberg presents, or perhaps I should say illuminates, that story which really sticks in the mind.
The film is an orgy of images and interestingly portrayed or presented characterizations and situations: a brilliant short montage of atrocities and nudity that somehow slipped by the nascent Production Code; sumptuous banquets lovingly scanned by the camera; grotesque figures adorning walls and stairways; gigantic carved doorways requiring the efforts of half a dozen people or more to open them; a Czarina (Louise Dresser) who snaps out dialogue more akin to the wise-cracking heroine of a mid-1930s comedy than a 19th century monarch; a doctor who revels in his sideline as executioner; a mad though not uncunning Grand Duke (Sam Jaffe) who parades around á la Harpo Marx and who enjoys using a brace and bit to spy on others; and of course Catherine herself (Marlene Dietrich) who gets to show off an incredible array of costumes in an arresting range of poses. Perhaps the most memorable of the costumes is a tight black number with bodice and hips accented in a feathery, fur-like material that has been frosted in white.
Von Sternberg had become intrigued with Marlene Dietrich as he directed her in The Blue Angel (1930, Germany) and when he returned to Paramount, he brought her with him. What followed (leading up to The Scarlet Empress) was a sequence of films that combined the exotic with the erotic: Morocco (1930, love with a Foreign Legionnaire in North Africa), Dishonored (1931, prostitute becomes WW1 secret agent), Shanghai Express (1932, a “Grand Hotel” on rails from Peking to Shanghai), and Blonde Venus (1932, idyllic American courtship turns decidedly sour). In The Scarlet Empress, Dietrich commands our attention throughout. She must first make us accept her as a naïve young woman, obediently responding to a summons from her parents by making the rounds of all the relatives in the room, kissing each as she passes. There are some difficulties in accepting Dietrich as this innocent, and in her wide-eyed looks, one sometimes gets the feeling that it’s all a bit of an act — that she really knows more than her actions and reactions suggest. In any event, after she is whisked off to Russia to be the Grand Duke’s wife, Dietrich’s Catherine is more persuasive as we see her gradually begin to understand what she is in for, and her encounters with Count Alexei and the Czarina prepare her for what a beautiful woman must deal with in court society. The first meeting with the Grand Duke is a cruel awakening to reality, but it begins the toughening process that transforms Catherine into the self-absorbed, calculating individual who recognizes that her destiny is either death or power. As one might expect, Dietrich is on sure ground with this aspect of the role. Her facial expressions and body language and von Sternberg’s lighting choices, camera positions, and costuming all contrive to place her in positions of control both literally and figuratively.
Sam Jaffe’s work as the Grand Duke Peter is worth mentioning. His is a complex characterization that belies our first introduction to the character. Peter is not just the pop-eyed simpleton that first appears before us. Mad he may in fact be, but more than once we get the sense that behind the antics lies an aware, calculating mind. Jaffe had an ability to convey subtly such duality in characters otherwise outwardly one-dimensional. His portrayals of the title character in 1939’s Gunga Din (RKO) and the brains behind the heist in 1950’s The Asphalt Jungle (MGM) had a similar quality.
Criterion has harvested more fruit from its relationship with Universal (which holds the video rights to pre-1950 Paramount sound titles) with the addition of The Scarlet Empress to its DVD Collection. The film is presented full frame in its original aspect ratio of 1.37:1 utilizing 19 scene selections. As advertised, the transfer is luminous looking and shows off von Sternberg’s compositions and Marlene Dietrich to good effect. The image is better looking than I have ever seen it either on home video or at theatrical revivals. It is, however, not comparable to the best-looking black and white DVD transfers. There is a graininess to the image much of the time and shadow detail is frequently lacking. Speckles and the occasional scratch are also in evidence. Knowing Criterion’s product, I’m presuming that they’ve done the best they could with what they got from Universal. What they’ve gotten is a second-generation print, as the original negative no longer survives. The sound is the original mono and it is in reasonable shape with minimal age-related hiss.
Among the supplements on the DVD is a 20-minute black and white BBC documentary made in 1967 and entitled “The World of Josef von Sternberg.” This is a fascinating piece that includes an interview with von Sternberg conducted by Kevin Brownlow and an example of the director at work lighting a woman who is one of several young filmmakers that von Sternberg has met with. There is also a photo gallery, consisting of about 50 stills and lobby card images, which provides an interesting visual record of the The Scarlet Empress. The DVD case contains a 12-page insert that includes a thoughtful introduction to The Scarlet Empress by well-known film scholar Robin Wood and a short appreciation of von Sternberg by underground filmmaker Jack Smith.
Aside from a slight disappointment with the clarity of the film’s image, I must also confess that I was hoping for more in-depth analysis of and history about the film by way of an audio commentary. It’s too bad Robin Wood couldn’t have been prevailed on to do such a commentary, given his obvious enthusiasm for and knowledge of the film as evidenced by his written introduction.
I recommend The Scarlet Empress highly. It’s an entertaining film that bears repeated viewings. The visual detail for which Josef von Sternberg is responsible is so rich that you see something new every time you watch the film, and the performances of Marlene Dietrich, Sam Jaffe and Louise Dresser are all rewarding. Criterion has done a fine job with its DVD release, although the image is not among the very best presentations of classic black and white films by that or other companies. Still, this is about as good as it’s going to get for The Scarlet Empress, so go out and get yourself a copy. I repeat: highly recommended!